South African media personality and Global Citizen Ambassador Penny Lebyane is known as much for her persona as she is for her activism, and using her voice to bring attention to social issues that are close to her heart.
To commemorate Human Rights Day on 21 March, she gave a group of global citizens a private tour of Constitution Hill, the historic site where thousands of anti-apartheid activists — including Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — were imprisoned.
The day is observed to remember 69 people who were killed in the township of Sharpeville, in Vereeniging, during a protest against pass laws that restricted the freedom of movement of black South Africans.
South Africa has come a long since the march and the days of apartheid, but the country still faces challenges like poverty, inequality, an inadequate health system, and gender-based violence.
“I believe that popular culture has a vital role to play in influencing and advancing policy,” Lebyane told Global Citizen. “Public figures should use the platforms we have, like social media and partnering with advocacy organisations, to hold leaders accountable for their actions or inactions.”
Lebyane said global citizens should remember that ending extreme poverty is a collective responsibility that needs everyone — from political and business leaders to ordinary people — to take action that supports the Global Goals.
“We should ensure that we follow through on the promises made by our constitution, which promotes and protects the rights and dignity of all people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said.
Lebyane also reflected on human rights issues that inspire her to keep using her voice and public profile to advocate for justice and equality:
1. Gender equality
“The right to equality is an essential right for which I strive ... Gender equality is especially key in South Africa, which continues to have high rates of gender-based violence despite efforts to end it, including awareness campaigns aimed at challenging myths about rape and violence against women. I believe equality will only happen by empowering girls and women, and by raising our young boys into men who understand the importance of creating an equal society.”
2. Menstrual health and hygiene
“The right to health care is one that would seem very basic and critical to achieving. However, having done work to collect and raise awareness of the need for sanitary pads for young girls, I have seen the devastating implications and consequences when this right is not enforced. Many South African girls continue to suffer from not having access to these basic products, which has an effect on their well-being and development. We need to ensure that young women grow up in good health and with dignity, which is another right they have, to enable them to be the rightful leaders in society.”
3. Ending the stigma around mental health
“My own personal experiences with postnatal and clinical depression have also taught me that as a society, we also need to focus on our mental health, more so as according to estimates, one-third of South Africans suffer from some form of mental illness. I’m an advocate for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and have been working with them for 12 years to destigmatise mental health.
For the most part, I have learnt that society does not understand many mental health disorders and thus would stigmatise them or wish to avoid them completely. As an advocate for depression and anxiety, which affect more than 300 million and 250 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization, I believe we should be working to achieve a healthy and balanced life including both mental and physical health.”